George Fisher is Director of Mission at Lichfield Diocese.
One of the things I am acutely conscious of is the lack of pastoral care in churches. Our pastoral care systems are based on a model of society and church life which was true 40 years ago but is not true today, and they are therefore inadequate. In the past a ‘regular church attender’ was there probably 50 out of 52 weeks of the year, missing one week for their annual leave and another for illness. In fact many attended more than once on a Sunday. Also, many clergy only had one church and therefore the task of seeing who was missing was relatively simple – the Vicar looked out over his flock.
Today the definition of a ‘regular church attender’ is probably more in the region of 35 Sundays out of 52. This is due to changes in society, especially the shape of Sundays today. What is more, clergy often have more than one church and are therefore either rushing from one church to another or not in every church each week. ‘Looking out over the flock’ and checking on who is missing and doing something about it has become far more complex, yet many churches have not adapted or developed new pastoral practices to meet the changes that have taken place. I encounter some churches which have ‘pastoral teams’ but then discover that their role is looking after the elderly, vulnerable and housebound, a crucial role but not one which meets the urgent need of caring for every single person. Churches will claim that they look after each other and it is true that the best pastoral care is of a loving church family doing this, but the reality is that in the vast majority of churches there is an ‘in group’ for which this happens and many are not part of this and are excluded and easily drift. We urgently need to address the issue of ‘pastoral safety nets’, not to displace the natural love and care in a congregation, but to look out for those who for one reason or another are not noticed and looked out for. These safety nets can take many shapes; pew pastors, congregational pastors, buddy systems, etc.
We also live in a country which is dominated by personal choice. In the past, if something went wrong in the church or there was a disagreement with the leadership of the church, the attitude was to stay and see it (or them) out. In the present era we are much more likely to change church, just as we do supermarkets and doctors if they do not reach the mark. People can often decide to leave at a time of a Vacancy where a church can drift, and lack of pastoral care can become evident. With the growing shortage of stipendiary clergy vacancies are likely to increase and this problem become more acute. Vacancies are a time when churches lose a lot of members, as shown by Bob Jackson in ‘The Road to Growth’ pages 35-29 and verified by more recent research. The work he is doing with CPAS and Saltley Trust to help churches have better vacancies is crucial. In addition to this, when a new Vicar arrives, if people do not like the changes, then they are much more likely to leave than they ever would in the past. We need to develop better training for our clergy and leaders in the management of change.
In the past few years Leicester Diocese has asked additional questions about ‘Joiners and Leavers’ as part of the Statistics for Mission returns. Not only is this important data, it also encourages the church leadership to think through who has left, and why, and who has joined and why. Lichfield Diocese adopted this in 2011 and I have been alarmed that some churches did not know who had left in the last year, and why, or who had joined in the last year, and where they came from. These questions which are now part of the national statistics for mission should help churches to become more aware of individuals and their journeys.
When I was a Vicar in Blackpool, I had many join the church who were reconnectors. I recognise many of the responses given in the survey. I attempted to provide for reconnectors enough space to find where they were without pressure, but at the same time a warm welcome, and opportunities to grow. I found small groups to be an integral part of this, just as they are a vital part of the glue which stops people leaving in the first place. Too many churches are giving up on small groups, or not investing enough time and energy into them to make them flourish, when they are a vital part of both reconnecting and staying connected.
This research is vital in the challenge it gives to the churches to close the back door through which too many go. Jesus’ parable of the sower assures us that we will never be able to achieve 100% as there are so many factors which contribute towards people leaving church. However, we can do far better than we do. This research helps to highlight this crucial area and is invaluable in helping to find effective ways to prevent people leaving and help those who have done so to reconnect.